Between his 12-album solo career under the moniker of Holy Sons and his work drumming for Grails and Om, Emil Amos has been steadily prolific since first emerging from his basement at the turn of the century. Originally a personal project never meant to see the light of day, his work is as personal, intimate, and sincere and a one-on-one therapy session with his muse. On the way to the green room, I mention that hearing his music for the first time had as powerful an effect on me as when I first heard Slint’s Spiderland, to which he says that he has a personal connection to that band, at which point I start recording.
Emil: I’m from Chapel Hill, North Carolina and Slint’s from Louisville [KY]. My mom was born in Louisville and my grandma was an art critic there in the fifties, so there’s maybe even unconscious relationships you’re picking up on if you can sense any sort of southern connection between Slint and Holy Sons.
Like I said, it’s more at an emotional level than at a sound level.
Emil: Right. It’s an era thing too because that all comes back to certain specific roots, specific seeds of listening to SST [records] bands definitely gave birth to Slint and it gives birth to a lot of forms of particular underground music. SST was a ground floor of hybridizing. You realize the strains are in your music whether you like it or not, just by that lineage.
You don’t seem to tour very often. What dragged you out?
Emil: This is a really good tour to go on, because the rooms are full and the people in Earth are incredibly nice at a one-on-one level, they’re extremely nice. Everything in the circumstances is a perfect scenario. Generally, in terms of all people who wanna make music or wanna make art and realize the kind of grind it is to go out into the world and convince people to listen to that, it’s really, in some circumstances, not even worth doing. This project began in a time when there was less over-saturation, but I still didn’t even wanna do it, because I just didn’t visualize an entertainment aspect to it; it was purely something that was supposed to be a rigorous therapeutic process, but didn’t have any thoughts about audience at all. I think that could sound pretentious, but it was conceived before any pretension could come into the equation because it was just a private thing; it was something I did by myself, for myself. Of course I grew up listening to people and wanting to be part of the entire dialectic of Dinosaur Jr. and all those great bands, of course I wanted to be part of that, but I just was so incredibly depressed in a few different ways. I just didn’t see myself doing it; I didn’t feel comfortable with the idea. It wasn’t really a stage fright thing as much as…I just didn’t visualize it; I just didn’t see myself entertaining people with my problems. That’s what I wanted to work through.
On this last album [Fall of Man], you don’t sound any, um, happier.
Emil: [laughter] That’s awesome.
Are you at a point where you’re afraid of not being depressed?
Emil: Well, although it seems like an absurd idea, on the one hand, I’ve been through enough emotional crests and ups and downs, but I’m relatively – I’m much more stable than I ever thought I would be, but I think your job in art is to – at least traditionally – is to unstable yourself and see what is at the bottom of the animalistic aspect of yourself and ask yourself things like…go to places that are extremely disturbing, squeeze the orange and get everything out of what poetry is supposed to do. Why do we do it? Why did we always do it? What were we trying to do? It’s, in a way, maybe a form of science, a form of looking for something, a curiosity, and trying to wrench it into a form of knowledge. I think there’s a lot of people out there just muddying the waters, because their curiosity is not very genuine or very deep, but the original purpose is kind of a experimentalism and discovery, just like taking LSD. A lot of people are trying to uncover and unlock this secret world of the cogs behind the surface of everything. That’s really a pretty lofty job, in theory.
Yeah! So much of human endeavor is built around avoiding pain. How do you get yourself to a place where you willingly seek out this pain, in the way a body-builder would?
Emil: I think if you grow up around people in your family, people who are…you start to discern that a lot of the people in the world are incredibly busy trying to escape pain. That’s one of the fundamental motivations in most people’s lives. There’s this massive network and system of avoiding pain. In a way, as an artist, I think it’s about doing less and actually just seeing things in their raw form, because you’re really taking away the conditioning. Your job is to take away the conditioning, which can be extremely complex. A lot of people go to therapy for the rest of their entire life, because they’re trying to see something about themselves that they can’t see. That’s incredibly complicated shit, and most of those people don’t ever get there. They keep saying the same f*cking thing their whole life. They keep wondering why what they’re doing isn’t working, why people won’t respond to their methods. Using art, I think you can actually perform those therapeutic rites. It depends what level of honesty you’re willing to go to. How dark do you wanna go?
I’ve heard you say that this music is about “facing your personal reality” and I was wondering in the “your” refers to Emil Amos’s, the listener’s, or both?
Emil: Well, at some point, I became – in college, I would read a lot, and I became – I think I forgot that I built a really hardcore philosophy out of a few pieces of things, and I think I kind of forgot what I borrowed it from, so I stopped reading Nietzsche and I stopped reading Dostoyevsky and all that stuff. It just became a part of everything, and, when I look back now, I’m like “Oh, yeah, I got that there -” I forgot. There’s a really – I don’t know how famous it is – but a to-me-legendary essay by Tolstoy called “What is Art?” and it’s pretty much where I’ve always come from. It basically says that art is made, ultimately, in private, and then brought to people, and then they relate to it and see themselves in it, but if art is made with the audience in mind at any point, you start to realize they’re there, it becomes entertainment, and it [snaps fingers] flips over immediately. It’s not like I read it and I was like “Oh, yeah, that sounds good”, but I read it and I was like “Exactly, that’s what I’ve been doing, and that’s what I am.” That’s why it was such a private thing, and that’s why all this jargon like “facing your personal reality” and all that stuff, because it’s just a way to say “Why do we all really do this” Maybe kids think they do it cause they saw this cool guitar riff on TV, but I think the reason that you really do it, is that you’re trying to uncover your own uniqueness, and that’s what we’re exchanging with each other in this kind of obsession with great artists who did that. You’re seeing this raw shape of what they are, just this super-complex design, this really fascinating person with fascinating ideas. Of course most of our day, most of the people taking up the airwaves are not that fascinating, but when you go down that road, it’s kind of up to you where you think that ends, because that shit can go forever. That’s my job is to see how far I can go, and I think most people are just generally happy with being on stage. I don’t really have any interest in being on stage compared to what my real job is, which is finding out what’s behind all of this, this entire pursuit.
In the past you’ve had concepts and themes that have run throughout your albums. What is the personal reality behind Fall of Man, if it is so organized?
Emil: Yeah, it’s weird. I always say in interviews that I don’t really believe in concept albums, but it kind of – and I work on records every day, so how could they all be concept, because it’s just a constant stream of work that you’re categorizing and packaging for someone else to digest. A lot of that’s just blatant consumerism and there’s some aspects of that that are total horse-shit. That’s just completely engineered for someone to make it friendly. It’s like a pill with a candy outer-shell, but, inside, you either love what you’re listening to or you don’t, and what’s gonna make you care about it. If you said that Dark Side of the Moon was a concept album about, y’know, there’s an alien in an asteroid, who f*ckin’ cares? That seems very Styx, the trappings of prog, to push music into a shape that can be digested like a broad way play. In the end, I wish the answer was fancier and a little catchy, but it’s basically a chapter of your own diary. That’s the most honest response is that it’s the most recent updated version of your worldview. Ironically, people think it’s the most cohesive record I’ve done and I think that’s kind of true, but I think it’s all arbitrary. Maybe it’s because I’ve done it so long I can do it a little easier, cover up the jagged edges, but I think a lot of that is in people’s minds, when they bring so much to music.
It’s hard not to project things.
Emil: Yeah, totally. I did it. I believed so many crazy ideas about Syd Barrett or whoever and I spent probably countless hours arguing in detention about “Oh, this is really the true spirit of Pink Floyd” but that’s something you do to pass the time when you’re young and the day comes when you’re supposed to make the shit yourself, and if you never get past that halted consumer zone, what are you doing but endlessly theorizing about other people’s products they’ve sold you? The Beatles kind of said it, and Jesus said it, but the point is: it’s beckoning you into yourself. The idea is you have a job to do, and The Beatles being good was kind of like “Look at yourself”, whereas The Stones, it was kind of like “Lemme have your money”, y’know what I mean? There’s a spirit in the Dalai Lama or the great spiritual thinkers that’s just like “Come to yourself. Don’t listen to me. Look at yourself. Deal with yourself.” I think it’s a delicate line. I don’t really feel like I’m trying to sell people something like a lot of podcasts and world-views kind of suggest, but it’s the attempt to be like “Deal with this landscape that you’re trying to avoid every day, and ask yourself if you can actually be happy, because the answer is like an endless riddle” Not that that’s some great and lofty pursuit to try to be happy, but I think everything we do is probably secretly trying to achieve that, probably secretly looking for this thing, like Alan Watts says of the ego, you’re feeding an invisible head that’s not giving you any nutrition. That’s what most people’s lives are spent doing, wasting their f*cking time. It’s about getting back to who you really are and trying to dissect what you aren’t. These things never end, so it seems like good album material to me.